Saturday 9th February 1980 – Tranmere Rovers 1 Lincoln City 0 (Football League Division Four)
Appointed manager in November 1978 Colin Murphy had been unable to prevent Lincoln City’s relegation from Division Three (now League One) at the end of the season, writes Malcolm Johnson.
However, starting in the summer of 1979 he had begun to build a new-look team and there were only two players in the lineup for the visit to Tranmere who had been part of the squad that had been relegated. A good start to the season had seen City just outside the promotion places until a run of games without a win throughout November and December – although only two matches had been played in the latter month. Now, a run of three wins and a draw had put City in 10th place going into this game.
Tranmere manager John King had made around 250 appearances for the club as a player during the 1960s after starting his career with Everton. He was now in his sixth season in charge at Prenton Park and had achieved promotion with the Rovers finishing fourth behind City in the 1975/76 season. Tranmere had stuck by King despite their relegation along with the Imps at the end of the previous season. Like City, they had made a good initial start to the season but had quickly slipped into mid-table and were currently placed 14th
The teams were:
- Eric McManus
- Steve Ward
- Phil Neale
- George Shipley
- Trevor Peake
- David Carr
- Trevor Thompson
- Nolan Keeley
- Mick Harford
- Tony Cunningham
- Derek Bell
- Aidan McKenzie (for Thompson)
- Dickie Johnson
- Les Parry
- Steve Mungall
- John Bramhall
- Elfyn Edwards
- Clive Evans
- Tommy O’Neil
- Steve Craven
- John Kelly
- Ken Beamish
- Steve Peplow
- Ray Mathias for Peplow
In goal for City was 29-year-old Northern Irishman Eric McManus. After making over 250 appearances for Notts County he had joined Stoke City for a fee of £35,000 the previous October and had been on loan at Sincil Bank since the end of December as replacement for the departed Peter Grotier. McManus was later to achieve promotion from the Third Division with Bradford City and was in their side on that fateful last day of the 1984/85 season. His league career ended with a handful of appearances for Tranmere before a spell with Boston United.
At right back, 19-year-old youth product Steve Ward was making the second and last of his two league appearances for the club as with Gordon Hobson missing due to a back strain, usual full back Trevor Thompson had been moved forward into the right of midfield. Thompson had joined from Newport County at the beginning of December for £10,000. Partnering Ward at left back was Phil Neale, the longest-serving member of the squad and the last survivor of Graham Taylor’s championship side of 1975/76.
In the centre of the defence were the 22-year-old Trevor Peake who had joined in the summer from non-league Nuneaton Borough for a fee of £15,000, and David Carr who had come from Luton Town for £20,000 also in the summer. Carr had initially been played in midfield before recently forming a partnership with Peake in defence.
Also in midfield were two players who had joined the club a fortnight previously. The skilful George Shipley had become City’s record signing at the age of 20 at a cost of £45,000 from Southampton for whom he had made just three first team appearances. In contrast, the 28-year-old Nolan Keeley had cost £7,000 from Scunthorpe after playing over 250 games for them.
City boasted plenty of height up front with Mick Harford, still only 20 but now in his third season with the club and currently leading scorer with 11 goals, and Tony Cunningham, along with Peake another of Colin Murphy’s summer signings from non-league football, having joined from Stourbridge for £20,000. Another expensive signing was Derek Bell who had cost £33,000 from Barnsley at the end of November after being top scorer for the Tykes as they won promotion from Division Four the previous season.
Making his Imps debut as a substitute when he came on for Thompson 12 minutes from the end was 20-year-old winger Aidan McKenzie who had joined from Galway Rovers in December. He was to make just five more appearances for Lincoln before being released in the summer to return to Ireland.
Tranmere’s Liverpool-born goalkeeper Dickie Johnson had been with his only league club since 1971 and was well on his way to almost 400 appearances for them. Also with long service for Tranmere, and two of them also Merseysiders, were the three full backs in the squad including 33-year-old substitute Ray Mathias. Like Johnson, also with his only league club, Mathias would eventually hold the club’s appearance record with a total of 637 games. He would later have two spells as manager of Wigan Athletic as well as a year in charge of Tranmere.
The two full backs starting the game were Les Parry and Steve Mungall. Parry was also with his only league club and would eventually total well over 250 games for them. The non-local-born player of this trio was Scotsman Mungall who had joined from Motherwell in November and would stay with the club for another 17 years, finishing with over 500 appearances. Central defender John Bramhall was in his second season as a first team regular and was to go on to become a well-known figure in the lower divisions with clubs such as Bury and Rochdale before finishing his league career with Scunthorpe. He is currently Deputy Chief Executive with the PFA. Alongside Bramhall was 19-year-old former Wrexham trainee Elfyn Edwards who had joined Tranmere the previous summer.
In midfield for Tranmere was a player who was to be one of the heroes of ‘Murphy’s Mission’ eight years later. The Merseyside-born 22-year-old Clive Evans was in his fifth season for the club and had finished as top scorer with 11 goals the previous season. He was later to spend time with Wigan, Crewe and Stockport before following Colin Murphy to Lincoln. Former Manchester United apprentice Tommy O’Neil had made over 50 appearances at right back for the Old Trafford club before moving to Southport, leaving them when they were voted out of the league in 1978 to join Tranmere. Also in midfield was yet another local-born player in Steve Craven, in his third season with the club and who was later to have a brief spell with Crewe before playing for a string of non-league clubs in the north west.
On the right wing for Tranmere was the 31-year-old Steve Peplow. He had started his career with his native Liverpool, making just two first team appearances for them before playing a number of games in Division Two for Swindon Town followed by a brief spell with Nottingham Forest. He was now in his seventh season with Tranmere and would eventually play over 250 times for them scoring nearly 50 goals. 19-year-old centre forward John Kelly had joined from local side Cammell Laird at the start of the season and was to move on to Preston in 1981 before playing for several mainly lower division clubs. Experience alongside Kelly was provided by Ken Beamish at the age of 32 who was in the latter stages of a career which had started with Tranmere in 1965. After almost 200 appearances with the Birkenhead club he had continued to score regularly for Brighton, Blackburn, Port Vale and Bury before returning to Tranmere in November since when he had struck 8 goals in eleven games. After a further season with Tranmere he finished his playing career at Swindon, also having a season as manager, with a total of 159 league goals behind him.
I paid my first, and at the time of writing, only, visit to Prenton Park to be part of a crowd of just 2,021 which was by no means Tranmere’s lowest of the season so far. The match programme, described as a ‘Newspaper Programme’ was of a type which a few clubs went in for at the time but which was not actually in a newspaper format, and consisted of just eight inconveniently large pages.
On a mudheap of a pitch City found themselves behind after just nine minutes when Tranmere striker John Kelly took advantage of hesitancy between Steve Ward and David Carr to fire in a low shot which Eric McManus pushed aside for defender John Bramhall to fire into net from about 10 yards.
Despite a disappointing first half display in which the Imps found themselves bogged down in the mud more than the physically stronger home side they had the chances to be at least level at the break. Derek Bell ought to have scored when he raced behind the defence after Trevor Peake and George Shipley had combined to create an opening, but hit his shot straight at goalkeeper Dickie Johnson. Tony Cunningham put a header wide after beating the goalkeeper in the air and Johnson did well to save a first-time volley from Mick Harford before the same player followed up to hit the outside of the post with a header.
With the wind behind them in the second half City looked a better side but were still unable to score. Harford saw a header saved by the goalkeeper’s knee, and when Bell took the ball round the goalkeeper on the left, he was forced to wait for support to arrive in the middle and the chance was gone. Tranmere themselves could have wrapped the game up midway through the half but Ken Beamish’s shot went narrowly wide of the post.
I’m not one of those who persistently criticise referees but this game was an exception, and the reason it has stuck in my mind is that a free kick seemed to be awarded to Tranmere every time a City player even made a tackle. Maurice Burton in his Echo match report confined himself to saying: “There were some bewildering inconsistencies in the referee’s handling of the game”, highlighting the booking of Trevor Peake for “an innocuous tackle” not long after Derek Bell had been felled by “a horrendous head high lunge” which only brought a free kick.
With missed chances blamed for City’s defeat Colin Murphy agreed that “the players let themselves down in the first half because they never really performed”, while in the second half they “steamrollered all over Tranmere but missed the goals”.
My own player ratings show I thought City’s best players were Trevor Peake and George Shipley with a below-average mark for young full back Steve Ward.
The result saw City remain in 10th place with Tranmere moving up to one point and one place below them. However, the Rovers managed only one win in their next 10 games on their way to finishing 15th while City, with the bulk of the following season’s promotion-winning side in place finished 7th following a 12-game unbeaten end of season run.
Tranmere manager John King was dismissed the following autumn but returned for a second spell in 1987 leading the club into Division Two (now the Championship) four years later and to three losing semi-final appearances in the play-offs for the Premier League.